Friday, August 16, 2013

      Doctor Nobody, or: How I Learned to Stop Sitting Passively By and Actually Fight the MOOC Machine

      As just-another college professor, it's hard not to feel like the war against MOOCs is more than a little bit like the War on Drugs, or the War or Terror, or the War on Poverty.  The "enemy" is largely nonspecific, nonlocatable, plural, mutable, incredibly powerful and often invisible.  It's hard to tell on which front or in which theater one is best advised to fight one's battles.  What is more, the immeasurable value of what one of my colleagues, Scott Newstok, called "close learning"-- that is (in Newstok's formulation), "the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student"-- is something that proponents of MOOCs do not disavow even as they undermine it, which makes the staking of claims in this contest all the more ambiguous.  As with the fight against poverty, drugs or terror, it's almost impossible to determine what would count as a "victory," either in the battle or the war against MOOCs.  Such is the case with all fundamentally "ideological" wars, I suppose, but as someone deeply invested in this particular struggle, I'm often frustrated by how little it appears the smallest of us can do to make a difference.  As a non-tenured, non-famous, SLAC Assistant Professor of Philosophy, I have almost no influence whatsoever on the macro-economic or policy decisions of my institution, and far less so on those of higher education in general.  Fortunately, I'm at an institution that has not (yet) drunk the MOOC Kool-Aid, though I see almost nothing in the larger pattern of decision-making at my institution that suggests such will be the case forever... or even for much longer.

      Nevertheless, we can only (and ought) do what whatever small part we can do in the service of what we believe in, of what preserves and encourages what we think is right, and of whatever might in some small way lodge chinks in the armor of what we think is wrong.  For all of the rest of you who, like me, are just one of the thousands and thousands of "Dr Nobody's" who constitute the great majority of academe, who labor every day to realize the virtues of "close learning," who care deeply about those incredibly magical and irreplaceable moments of one-on-one teaching/learning-- exhibited most dramatically, perhaps, by Socrates' demonstration of mathematical fundamentals with nothing more than a stick and a patch of sand in the Meno-- for all of you, I offer the following demonstration of one small (largely insginificant and probably inconsequential) example of how to resist the MOOC machine.

      Two days ago, I received the following email (names/institutions redacted):

      From: [redacted]
      Sent: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 7:14 PM
      To: Johnson_Leigh
      Subject: Your blog grading rubric

      Dear Dr. Johnson,

      I was in the process of developing a blog grading rubric when I came up yours in Google Docs. I am very impressed by its clarity and comprehensiveness. I wonder if you would consider allowing me and the colleagues with whom I am co-teaching to use it, with some small adaptations, for our courses this fall? We would, of course, include attribution to you. 

      Just a note about the courses: they are blended or fully online courses that will be based upon a metaliteracy connectivist MOOC ( that will include students from the University at [redacted] and [redacted] State College, as well as other participants who won't be getting credit. The rubric would be used with the enrolled students. If you do allow its use, our preference would be to make it available to students through the course's website. If that is a problem, we could put it on our campuses learning management systems. 

      With best regards, 
      Distinguished Librarian 
      Head, Information Literacy Department 
      University Libraries, University at [redacted]

      As anyone might be, I was initially flattered. I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to incorporate new technologies into my classroom (against much resistance and quite a bit of negative judgment from my colleagues), so I was glad to see that someone outside my department valued what I have been doing.  But, still, give all that hard work away? Invest my labor into the very machine that aims to make my profession irrelevant?  No, I don't think so. Below is my reply.

      Dear [redacted],

      Thank you for your interest in my course and, more particularly, in the hard work I have done to develop a grading rubric for my pedagogy of student-blogging in my courses.  I'm afraid I'm going to have to respectfully decline granting permission for you to use my rubric.  Below, I will explain my reasons, which I genuinely hope you will take time to read and consider.

      As a philosophy professor, I believe that thinking is best done in conversation, and I also believe that education is about nothing other than thinking, in a serious and committed way, in conversaton with others.  The original motive for my incorporation of blogs in all of my courses was to encourage more conversation about the material my students and I are thinking about and that they are learning, which the blogs allow us to accomplish in addition to the three hours we have in conversation together each week.  Technological innovations over the past decade have made this  possible in my courses, and (as an avowed technophile) I am immensely grateful for these new opportunities.  However, in my view, the virtues of new media and new technologies in the age-old practice of teaching and learning are, quite simply, not virtuous independent of their cooperative utilization with what goes on inside the classroom.  In fact, independent of the classroom, they may be vicious.

      I am not an advocate of MOOCs, which I think fundamentally undermine the years of learning, work and experience that most faculty commit to their areas of expertise.  Those who have committed the years and years of their time to THE most fundamental task of cultivating the conscientiously-prepared, moral and political disposition of our collective educated citizenry are, without doubt, the greatest cultural assets we have.  No technology, in my view, can serve as a substitute for them  The greatest, and truly world-changing, virtue of our new "technological" age is that information is so much more accessible to so many more people, a virtue that cannot be overstated and that should not be undervalued.  Nevertheless, information and the transmission of information is not, and has never been, equal to education.  The laborious work of committed interaction, reflection, criticism, speculation and the generation of new knowledge is something that requires first and foremost the close engagement of experts with pupils, experience with naïveté, measured skepticism with overconfident certainty, and vice versa. The benefit that is effected by the face-to-face proximity of students and teachers cannot, and ought not, be replaced.

      The fact that MOOCs are fundamentally, in my view, little more than a manner of watering-down, devaluing and imperfectly-substituting for the incredibly important labor that hardworking people in my profession do is something to which I cannot be a party.  To wit, I ask: could the MOOC you are facilitating succeed without its parasitic feed on the "real" work of "real" educators like myself? 

      The new technologies being employed to replace the classroom accomplish many and varied amazing things.  For those of us still in the classroom, still trying to herald the merits of the classroom, these new technologies are increasingly indispensable.  But these new technologies do not THINK.  They do not reflect, they do not plan, they do not adjust, and they do not care. They are not educators.  The important work of educators is, and I hope remains, the irreplaceable and invaluable labor done by those, like me, who suffer every day to make the experience of the classroom one that cannot be replaced.

      Leigh M. Johnson
      Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy
      Rhodes College

      One small, insignificant step at a time.  That's all we can do, really.